Posted by Guest on July 05, 2017 in Blog

By Haley Arata & Annie Riley

In our post 9/11 society, “Fear mongering makes it incredibly easy for people to support bad policy,” Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, said during the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology hosted The Color of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of American Immigrantsconference on June 22. She added, the “bedrock American principle that everyone has equal protection under the law is really under threat.” Civil rights activists, policy analysts, university and law professors addressed the nature of government tracking in the United States. Panelists discussed the intersection of surveillance and race, religion, birthplace, and immigration status. More specifically, the conference addressed a number of issues such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, the border, the Muslim ban, and the technological advances of surveillance. 

Professor Arjun Sethi of Georgetown Law kicked off the discussion on CVE by challenging the idea that there are universal indicators for extremism. Subset programs of CVE such as “Don’t Be a Puppet” and “Shared Responsibility” rely on the notion that there are certain discernible characteristics that indicate whether an individual is prone to violent extremism. As Sethi argued, these indicators -- such as taking pictures of national buildings, buying desktop or laptop computers, playing online videogames -- are largely arbitrary and unsuccessful. Nonetheless, law enforcement uses such indicators alongside predictive policing (predicting where, when and by whom a crime will be committed) to try to prevent terrorism. These CVE programs and predictive policing disproportionately target American Muslims and Arab American communities and lead to profiling, subverting basic standards such as probable cause and reasonable suspicion.

Questions of violations of basic standards and constitutional rights continued as panelists addressed surveillance in relation to the border and the Muslim ban. Hassan Shibly of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida relayed personal stories of the difficulty of crossing the Canada-US border. Interrogations, humiliation, and not-so-random inspections often plague Shibly’s journeys across the border. And Shibly is not the only one subject to this process, as he has noted that during the inspections approximately 50-70% of others in the room are visibly Muslim and/or Arab. Reiterating the dangers of systematic profiling, Shibly noted, “[Profiling] makes our country less safe, and it makes us less free.” Shifting to the Mexico-US border, Patrisia Macias-Rojas emphasized the way crime politics of the 1980’s and 1990’s changed border policing for border communities. During the Reagan era, the Latino youth were disproportionately sent to prison. In an effort to alleviate overcrowded prisons, the legislature promoted policies to go ahead and deport drug offenders or perceived offenders near the border. This was and continues to be a complete over-reach of immigration enforcement procedures. Macias-Rojas implores us to pay attention to the ICE agents and the correctional officers, as they have a significant amount of power and can be positive agents for change going forward.

As Xiaoxing Xi reached the podium, he joked, “I am probably the only professor of physics in this auditorium.” The audience chuckled before Professor Xi began to recount the morning he was awoken by armed FBI agents, preparing to breach his front door. Xiaoxing Xi is a naturalized American citizen from China and has devoted his life to research and academia. On the morning of May 21, 2015, Xi’s wife and two daughters watched as he was handcuffed and detained. The FBI believed Xi to be a Chinese spy, who had violated a non-disclosure agreement and shared technology with the Chinese. After several months, the case fell apart, and the charges dropped as expert physicists testified and explained the complicated, yet unclassified technology that Xi had shared, which was part of normal academic collaboration. Xi is now suing the FBI for violating his constitutional rights. Xi and his lawyers claim his arrest, which resulted in the removal of his title as the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Physics and head of the department at Temple University, “was part of a law enforcement mind-set that views Chinese-Americans as uniquely suspicious.” Xi believes he was targeted because of his birthplace and physics expertise. The professor claims the arrest was not an innocent mistake and undermines his confidence in the government. For more information on Xi’s case, see the Xiaoxing Xi Legal Defense Fund.

Professor Xiaoxing Xi and many other ‘foreigners’ have been subjected to surveillance by the FBI and other government agencies. In addition to the seizing of personal belongings and monitoring of phone calls, emails, and other activity, the Department of Homeland Security among other government agencies has exploited the advancements in technology to increase surveillance and further infringe upon Americans’, visitors’, and immigrants’ privacy. Harrison RudolphAli WinstonParomita Shah, and Neema Singh Guliani sat on a panel to discuss the tracking of immigrants. Since 9/11, every foreign person, who has entered the U.S. has been photographed and added to a database, but facial recognition is no longer only for immigrants and foreigners, but all persons in the country. The DHS wants to expand facial recognition technologies at all airports and has teamed up with Delta and JetBlue to expedite the process of security screening and boarding flights using biometrics. By collecting this data of all travelers -- native born Americans, immigrants, and visitors, the DHS is able to compare a traveler’s face to that of an unknown number of criminals and other wanted persons. A match to a wanted person could lead to hours, even days, of detainment and interrogation, when the technology has an error rate of up to 4%. However, Americans and immigrants are, for the most part, unaware of FBI and DHS practices.

As government agencies expand surveillance programs to further breach our privacy, it is important that we educate ourselves on the issues of surveillance and speak out against these intrusive practices. As the keynote speaker Vanita Gupta said, “We can be safe while upholding our most cherished constitutional rights.”


Haley Arata & Annie Riley are summer 2017 interns at the Arab American Institute.